On Tuesday, April 3rd, an armed assailant entered YouTube headquarters and opened fire on employees. The attacker, a woman named Nasim Najafi Aghdam, shot and wounded three employees before shooting herself. Aghdam did not have a link to the three people she shot, and the random attack raised important questions about workplace safety and security. There are many ways corporate campuses can bolster their employee safety plan, but the shooting at YouTube presented created new concerns about vulnerabilities of the the open campus style favored by Silicon Valley tech companies.
The open office concept was created in Germany in 1950 by a team named Quickborner, who called this layout “the office landscape”. This type of office design was popularized with mobile technology, and has only been adopted in the United States during the last decade. In an open campus, offices are integrated into the surrounding suburban area, so residents and employees regularly mingle on the campus green or shopping in nearby retail. The open plan interior is thought to be more conducive to collaboration, since employees aren’t separated by cubicles. The space is instead characterized by workstations with no partitions and convertible collaboration spaces instead of conference rooms. Often, employees aren’t assigned to one space, and all work space is reserved on a first-come first serve basis, also known as “hotdesking”.
For employers, there are benefits to switching to an open campus, such as offering employees a sense of freedom while at work and coexisting peacefully with the surrounding residents. For the interior, the open space is thought to promote collaboration and decrease procrastination, both of which improve productivity. However, the open work space presents unique security challenges that business should consider when crafting a safety plan.
Open Campus Safety Challenges
The problem with protecting employees on an open campus is that the space was created with relaxation and comfort in mind. Unfortunately, this often means full accessibility, which present issues when it comes to managing security. Most businesses with an open campus do have security protocol that restricts access to the campus buildings, such as tap-in ID cards, but this doesn't account for the open outdoor or community spaces. In an interview with ABC News, former U.S. counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security John Cohen described how the open campus, while good for productivity, finds itself at odds with building security.
"Most companies have embraced security protocols that restrict access to these open campuses,” Cohen said. "Once you're in the campus, they're designed to be free and open spaces because that's conducive to the type of environment they want to have in place to foster creativity and productivity. The problem is, from a security perspective, the more open, the more that an individual can move around and come into contact with other people, the easier it is for an attacker to operate in that environment.”
"The problem is, from a security perspective, the more open...the easier it is for an attacker to operate in that environment.”
For this reason, the sprawling campus buildings pose difficulties. In Silicon Valley, huge companies such as Facebook, Google, and Alphabet Inc’s recent expansion efforts have tried to make their campuses more inviting, so employees are open to mingle with neighbors in retail spaces and parks. According to the Wall Street Journal, this expansion strategy serves two purposes – it allows young tech employees access to stores and restaurants they enjoy, and it serves as a peace offering to the existing residents whose approval is needed to continue expansion. However, security remains a challenge, since the clusters of buildings cannot be fenced off in an effort to increase security.
The interior of these office buildings also present difficulties. Employees aren’t working in individual offices that can lock, and are instead working in huge shared rooms. There’s controlled access to the work space, but if an assailant bypasses that access point it leaves many employees vulnerable to attack. During the YouTube attack, Aghdam entered the building through the parking garage, which had two pedestrian doors. There was security on site, but the shooter managed to enter through a low-security point of the building. This reveals vulnerability for the office park, and forced the company to reevaluate response to critical incidents.
In a statement issued by Google, YouTube’s parent company, employees were assured that all precautions were being taken to improve safety. The statement read: “We are also revisiting this incident in detail and will be increasing the security we have at all our offices worldwide to make them more secure not only in the near-term, but long term.” It's not yet clear how the company will revise their business safety procedures, but there are unique challenges for the tech-world when it comes to improving workplace security.
Balancing Security And Business Operations
The YouTube campus in San Bruno was designed to prioritize openness. It is made up of small buildings in close proximity, spread out across a suburban area. There are outdoor green spaces, and employees and locals are free to wander the area freely, and security guards are usually positioned at desks inside the building. Unfortunately, this creates many areas that aren’t secure for people working for the company, since employees are required to badge into the buildings, but the open space is accessible to all. The challenge is preserving this freedom to explore and use the campus space without fear, while also managing safety. Businesses don't want to overwhelm or instill fear in their community with highly visible security presence but they also need to make sure workers are protected.
The biggest challenge for managing workplace safety in Silicon Valley is balancing business needs with an appropriate security plan, two things that often run antithetical to each other in the tech world. In Fortune, former chief security officer at Uber Technologies Inc. and Facebook Joe Sullivan talked about how Silicon Valley’s environment poses an unprecedented security challenge. “Companies invest in security but purposefully keep physical security measures discreet because the vibe is casual and relaxed,” Sullivan told the magazine. “Leaders want to stay connected with their teams, generally choosing less visible security than you would see in traditional finance or media companies.”
Tourism also poses an issue for tech companies. Visitors are welcome to public areas, and regularly stop by the Facebook offices to take a picture with the giant thumbs-up sign or Android statues in front of Google. Companies have an obligation to protect employees from outside threats, but also to ensure that their grounds are a safe space for all visitors. Tourism is just one reason that businesses are beginning to take a more proactive approach to safety. "We're beginning to see those same business leaders come to understand that creating a safe environment for the workers and for visitors not only can enhance your brand but can make people more comfortable and more productive," Cohen told ABC News.
Strategies For Improving Open Campus Security
In recent months, gun violence has been at the forefront of the national conversation. Before the YouTube shooting, Silicon Valley was not part of this discussion, which often centers on public spaces like outdoor concerts, schools, or houses of worship. The perpetrator who entered the open campus and opened fire raised new concerns for tech companies, forcing them to rethink security practices. While not every one of the tech giants has this set up - Apple’s new headquarters Apple Park in Cupertino, California, for example, is circular campus that is closed off to the public. However, there are enough of these spaces to raise big worries for tech giants who want to maintain the freedom and open feel that a clustered campus offers, while also managing any threats to employees or the public at large.
Luckily, there are several ways to improve safety and security for a company with an open campus, without dramatically changing the company culture. It’s important for the tech world to take a proactive approach to security for business continuity. The reality is that an active shooter attack or other major emergency on company grounds could damage the ability to bring in new employees and conduct business in the long term. The first step for businesses is to address security checkpoints. These should ensure that access to the buildings is controlled, and then interior building areas, especially those with open work formats, also have a security guard and require badge access.
The most difficult task for employee and visitor safety is hardening the public spaces. It’s important that workers don’t feel fearful, which means security personnel need to keep a low profile on campus. An anonymous 2-way tip helpline can be helpful, giving employee a discrete way to take safety into their own hands and report any suspicious activity in the area. Technology for emergency response is arguably less invasive then increasing presence of security personnel, though company's may want to reevaluate security checkpoint placement throughout their open campus as well.
SMS Opt-In is a good option for tech companies with open areas. If tourists are going to be in the area for the afternoon, or an outside group is visiting the campus, they can opt-in for alerts for the duration of their visit. This will also help for brand reputation, as visitors will be able to see the company’s commitment to creating a safe environment.
Communication is important for managing workplace safety on an open campus. Effective communication can protect all employees, and is especially necessary when workers are spread out across many buildings and on the grounds. An emergency notification system can improve employee communication and awareness, and works in a variety of emergency situations including severe weather, active shooter threats, or medical emergencies. It also can help employers to conduct wellness checks, which are valuable for managing employee safety during an emergency. Many of these systems also have geo-poll or location capability, which can help identify an employee in need of help and send first response to the appropriate location.
Education can be a tool as well, and if possible, employees should go through active shooter training or online classes. There is a delicate balance between preparedness and fearfulness, but it's necessary for workers to understand protocol should an emergency situation arise. There are simple procedures and drills that every company should have in place in case of an emergency, which will also cut down on disorganization or chaos and save time during emergency response.
While it may not be at the forefront of every business plan, in the current environment, companies should take a proactive approach to employee safety. It’s important to factor security into business plans and office design, and it is possible to maintain the integrity of an open campus while prioritizing employee safety. It just takes education, innovation and leveraging technological tools, but this is what Silicon Valley is known for, after all.